In Ryan’s Words:
Are things bigger in Texas? We’re about to find out. I’m thinking tarantulas, the Big Bend, and that stretch of I-10 between the Sabine River and El Paso. That road goes on near forever. But, in this family, we are all about getting away from roads. Absolutely as far as possible, in fact.
We have precisely calculated that the farthest distance you can get from a road in all of Texas is 6.6 miles. When we discovered that, I was like–huh? That can’t be right. Six point six is nowhere near as large as for many other states, such as: Alaska (200 + miles), Wyoming (21.7 miles), Montana (18.0), Wisconsin (17.2), Florida (17.0), Michigan (16.5), Idaho (14.7), and Minnesota (14.3). Before we discovered this, we were thinking that the second largest U.S. state, which is larger than quite a few world countries, ought to have a much larger wild area, or many of which, where one could get way farther from a road than that.
Despite the diminutive distance you can get from a road in all of Texas, in order to mount a family expedition to get there, we still get ourselves a Texas-sized adventure.
We have literally calculated the maximum distance from a road in all of Texas using ArcGIS software from ESRI. GPS coordinates precisely mark the whereabouts of the place. We call the coordinates THE “Texas Remote Spot.” We do this for every state in America. Every state has its ‘remote spot.’ After calculating a state remote spot, we mount a family expedition to get there. Each state remote spot expedition is carefully documented. While there, we measure the extent to which human civilization may or may not be detected from the state remote spot. We call the whole crazy wonderful thing: Project Remote. Texas is the 37th state we have done.
I once naively thought we could get the entire country done in about 5 years. Project Remote has been going on now for over a decade and counting. It keeps us–Ryan (aka dadoo), Rebecca (aka mama), and rapidly growing daughter Skyla– constantly engaged in creating our next grand remote spotting adventure together. Our knowledge of remote America keeps growing. Our list of completed challenges lengthens. The number of people we reach with a conservation message increases. But the number of new roads increases in America faster than anyone can keep up with. It is not sustainable. And it is not desirable for those of us who love all that is natural, wild, free, and remote.
It wasn’t easy to precisely calculate the Texas Remote Spot. Or any other state remote spot, for that matter. Just ask my wife and colleague, Rebecca. The frown on her face says it all when she’s asked about it. Years ago, our first grueling attempt at calculating the correct Texas Remote Spot placed the location along the south Texas coast on top of a dune overlooking the beach inside Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. We delighted. Our long-time friend and colleague, Boyd Blihovde, happened to be the refuge manager there. We informed Boyd of our calculation and began preparations to make our documentary journey to the Texas Remote Spot. Getting to see our friend would be a bonus.
However, while conversing with Boyd on the phone many months later, he relayed to us that the beaches of Texas legally are driven upon by automobiles, even within state and national conservation lands. A law allowing for motorized vehicular access to all Texas beaches was passed by the Texas legislature in the 1930’s. We balked when hearing that motor vehicles were allowed to drive on the sensitive turtle and bird nesting beaches of Laguna Atascosa and the greater Padre Island nationally owned conservation lands. But legal driving on beaches was grandfathered in by said law before the national wildlife refuge system acquired the beaches within Laguna Atascosa NWR.
There would be no way we could accept any state remote spot where vehicles were allowed to drive right over it. This forced us to consider the coastline of Texas as a “road” and recalculate the Texas Remote Spot. It would take many more hours during spare time chunks in the coming months to finally pin down the correct Texas Remote Spot.
Texas is a prime example of how time consuming it can be to precisely calculate the maximum distance from a “road” in a given state. First, you have to know what a road is. That’s harder to define than we thought. After years of cogitation on the many variations of a road, we now define “road” as: any mapped or visible track on terrestrial uplands (interior lands) above mean high tide (coastal) over which motorized vehicles pass frequently enough to maintain the track. Therefore, let road equal: paved, unpaved, public, private, powerline right of way, train tracks. And now, Texas beaches. For Alaska, off road villages in the wilderness will count as ‘roads,’ since most of them do have motor vehicles. Winter ice roads will have to count up there as well. Islands count in state remote spot calculations, since islands are just as developable as main lands. The Florida Keys are a prime example.
To calculate the farthest distance from a road in a state, we must acquire the most up to date roads data from each state. However, as has been the case for every state thus far, there is no single agency or entity that keeps tabs on all existing roads per given state. Because of this, we frequently calculate a remote spot only to discover un-mapped roads nearby. Each time we make a calculation and find a “new” as of yet un-mapped road, we must digitize the road into the Arc GIS shapefiles and recalculate taking into account newly accounted for roads. We grit our teeth in frustration. Typically, a given state requires dozens of such calculation/recalculation combos. Texas required nearly a hundred such iterations. Each calculation attempt can take an hour or more. It often takes longer to calculate a state remote spot than it does to GO THERE! Because zero states have any single entity keeping very latest track of all roads development, states are developing their once remote landscapes more rapidly than anyone knows–or is precisely keeping track of. This story is unfolding all across America.
After years of calculation attempts for Texas, in the Fall 2018, we finally zeroed in on the likely Texas Remote Spot. Fittingly it is located within the iconic Big Bend region, within Big Bend National Park (BBNP). As soon as we confirm the spot, we reach out to BBNP and request a scientific research permit to make our documentary expedition. National Parks require some permitting to do research. Long-time Big Bend National Park (BBNP) biologist, Raymond Skiles, corresponds with us during the several week-long permit process. Incidentally, we discover that he is very near his retirement.
The Texas “Big Bend” country refers to the vast desert and mountain landscape that occurs within that part of Texas that is underneath New Mexico, or Trans-Pecos region. The Big Bend is within the southern half of the Trans-Pecos. The Rio Grande (known as the Rio Bravo del Norte by Mexican citizens) makes a huge “bend” and cups the region on three sides to the west, south, and east. This rugged patch of wild, raw Earth feels like another planet. Remains of extinct volcanoes stretch skyward among ancient limestone plateaus. Earth’s crust was penetrated many times here by magma upwellings, while simultaneously being crunched, lifted, stretched, and eroded. Rivers and streams carved deep canyons. The resulting landscape is a classroom for almost every term in a geology textbook. Most folks consider the Big Bend region to be remote and wild. By many metrics, it is.
Some of this splendid region is preserved within 2 major public conservation lands. The Big Bend National Park preserves just over 801,000 acres of this landscape, while the adjoining Big Bend Ranch State Park preserves slightly over 300,000 acres.
The Rio Grande runs through it. Beginning pristinely as snow melt in the high country of the San Juan Mountains in SW Colorado, it flows southward through a gauntlet of thirsty humans and crops in New Mexico. Then, it flosses between the two adjacent million-person cities of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. Beyond that, it frequently is skinny enough to wade or skip a rock across. It trickles another 200 miles southeastward to its confluence with Mexico’s Rio Conchos. The Rio Conchos gives it a needed water boost that propels it through the rugged Big Bend country. Within the arching curve of the Big Bend, it is designated a national wild and scenic river. Past the Big Bend, it flows several hundred more miles eventually to the western Gulf of Mexico. Volumetrically, the Rio Grande, is merely a fraction of its former self, but the importance to ecology and culture of a river running through the desert cannot be overstated. It still is a stunningly wild and gorgeous riparian corridor.
Literally as we pack for our latest Project Remote adventure in TX, we encounter another hurdle just days from departure. While perusing a satellite image to plan our expedition route, I squint at the computer screen. I notice a discernible track inside our roadless area polygon that contains the remote spot. “Is that a damn road right there next to the remote spot?” I said. “How did we miss that!!!” It wasn’t exactly huge and glaring, but most roads, especially in an open desert, are clearly visible from satellite imagery as you zoom in close on a computer. Both Rebecca and I concur it is likely a road. Ay, caca! Here we go again!
The apparent road could monkey wrench all our latest planning and permitting. It could knock our progress in Texas back by another year. Maybe, just maybe, the “road” is an old left over horse and wagon track or abandoned 4×4 auto track. In Project Remote, we have encountered several such apparent roadbeds inside wild lands that no longer are utilized by motor vehicles. The tracks may still be visible, but, because motor vehicles no longer are permitted to drive on said roadbeds, it no longer counts as “road” in our view. Roads can, in fact, be left alone, and can restore themselves back to native habitat. We’ve hiked restoring roadbeds while going remote in West Virginia and other states. We’re hoping this is the case for the current situation.
I call Raymond, to inquire about the road. He is very knowledgeable and is a pleasure to speak with. After a nice long introductory conversation, when I ask about the road, he informs me that it is an old park service road that ‘barely’ gets used any more. But it does see use every few years. Discouraged, I say to Raymond, “since it still does get some use, it must qualify as a road in our stringent roads definition.” I make a grimace. This means we will have to recalculate, re-plan, and rain check the Texas expedition yet again.
Just moments later, still on the phone, I get an idea and blurt it out to Raymond, “What if y’all close that road and never ever use it again? It could restore itself back to native desert habitat. That way, the Big Bend National Park ensures the preservation of the remotest location from a road in all of Texas. The Texas Remote Spot fittingly would and should reside forever inside the most iconic conservation land in Texas.”
Raymond agrees wholeheartedly. He explains that he had been working for years on a wilderness plan for the park which included the closure and restoration of several park roads. But he also explains that closure of a park road will have to be run up the chain of command and ultimately be decided by the new BBNP superintendent, Bob Krumenaker. Raymond recommends that I call or write to Bob and explain the situation.
As soon as Raymond and I hang up, I immediately construct Bob the email. He gets back to me timely and seems very receptive to the idea of closing the small stretch of desert track in question that penetrates the otherwise largest roadless area in Texas. I’m elated that our inquiry into this matter may lead to the protection of the Texas Remote Spot. If so, then the Texas Remote Spot lies near the eastern boundary of BBNP, on the steep east-facing slopes of the Dead Horse Mountains. I reflect uneasily on just how steep that slope appears to be on the map.
Beyond the immediate pleasure of working with the BBNP to help ensure conservation of the largest roadless area in Texas, there is a little more history between the Big Bend and me. I have traveled to the Texas Big Bend many times in life beginning in childhood. While I am a native born north Floridian and have lived there most of my life, I did live a few of my grade school years in NE Texas after my parents parted ways. During that time, my father took my brother and me to the Big Bend when I was just seven. We hiked, camped, and explored the immense desert for a week. We backpacked to the top of Emory Peak in December 1979, camped every night on the ground under the stars, and woke up with frost on our sleeping bags. That first overnight backpacking trip into the wild kicked off a lifelong passion for wilderness exploration for me. Two more father/son trips to the Big Bend occurred, one the very next year, and another when I was 13. Each experience helped construct the outdoor-loving man I was going to be.
As an adult I have traveled to “The Bend” almost annually in search of solitude, adventure, and communion with nature. It happens to be the closest wild place in the American West that a wilderness seeker from the Southeast (like me) can get to by car. It is also one of the most incredible and rewarding natural places to experience in our great Nation. As a life-long conservationist working to save something–anything–natural, wild, and free, it would bring my life and conservation career great meaning to have anything at all to do with Big Bend area conservation. Ultimately, Big Bend remoteness conservation will rest in the hands of caring politicians, park officials and, most of all, We the People of United States. It’s a national ecological and recreational treasure that absolutely should be preserved forever in its natural state. And it needs no more roads.
November 30, 2018. I hate sitting on my rear in a car for umpteen hours. At least, I am heading to the Big Bend again. This time with my beloved girls on a Project Remote mission. There is nothing better in life than this for me. The first long day’s drive on I-10 from Florida to Texas is grueling. I always am saddened by seeing so much development of the once pristine Coastal Plain.
Speaking of the Coastal Plain, Rebecca and I actually lead a non-profit conservation organization called the Coastal Plains Institute. We have worked our entire careers with CPI trying to save our North Florida region. We conduct biological research, provide experiential environmental education, and manage two ecological preserves in North Florida. All of our work has a conservation spin to it. Project Remote is our side endeavor that takes us well outside our geographical “box.” We have learned so much about ourselves, and wild America.
Despite the downer vibe I get while traveling through the development-marred Coastal Plain, just knowing that we are headed toward something wild keeps the spirits up. Houston is a nightmarish urban maze to have to navigate. No offense meant to ya’ll who love it. Once past the 50-mile wide human sardine can, things improve ecologically, scenically and mentally until San Antone, when the world tries to be Houston again. I am the usual driver on Project Remote. Rebecca will reach over and massage my neck or hold my hand when things get dicey in all that traffic.
My mind often wanders farther than my body does while on Project Remote. I never let myself off the hook for being part of the human problem with the planet. How can we galavant the nation in our gas guzzler, thanks to all those roads that we lament so much, and feel as though we are somehow exempt from the conservation crisis? It’s a conundrum, to be sure. The only answer I’ve come up with? We are all part of the problem. Not all of us are part of the solution. So the answer lies somewhere in striving to be part of the solution.
At the end of the second day of driving, it’s like: Ahhh….so glad to be in “The Bend” again. I always love the drive southward out of Ft. Stockton. The sky opens up and overall development decreases. However, I have noticed a few more oil derricks, drive ways, and travel trailer homes encroaching southward year by year. The view of just one road or human structure on a vast landscape can ruin an experience for a solitude seeker.
When we (a.k.a. the Remote Spotters) get to BBNP, we check in immediately with Raymond. We confer with him on the route we would like to take in order to get to the Texas Remote Spot. He suggests hiking from Rio Grande Village over the Marufo Vega Trail through the lower Sierra del Caballo Muerto (Deadhorse Mountains) to get to the eastern side of the mountains within Boquillas Canyon. From Boquillas Canyon, we would then strike north up Arroyo Venado about 1.5 miles to near the Texas Remote Spot, then undertake a steep 700-foot ascent up the east-facing cactus and boulder-laden slopes of the Sierra.
Since the Texas Remote Spot lies approximately 1.5 miles from Boquillas Canyon and the Rio Grande, we assume that, at least for much of our trip, we will have relatively easy access to drinking water. Raymond says, “by the way, don’t drink the Rio Grande….it will give you upset stomach, even if you filter it….” I balk at that. Then he relays that all the dissolved minerals in the water, which can’t be filtered out, are what typically deliver upset stomach and diarrhea. Balking turns to realization. This means we will have to carry in all our water. This will make our family expedition MUCH heavier and more difficult. When will we ever get to experience “ultralight” on one of our Project Remote backpacking trips? Heck, we’d settle for just “light.”
We chew on this. How will we get all our water into and out of the Texas Remote Spot? I am told that the Sierra del Caballo Muerto is one of the driest places in the park. And that’s dry for what is already a parched desert. How will we carry four days and three nights worth of water, at one gallon per person per day, on top of camping and camera gear for three humans in the desert? An idea flashes. What if we cached water along our proposed backpacking route, so that, while actually on our expedition, we can hike from cache to cache and stay much lighter? We would re-fill as needed at each cache location both going out and coming back. Sounds good in theory. Raymond suggests asking around Terlingua to see if any tour guides would mind caching us some water along the Rio Grande cooridor. We would need to see if they happen to be running the river through Boquillas Canyon in the next few days.
We check out the visitor’s center at Panther Junction for a while, make our next few days plans with rangers, stock up on a few supplies, and realize the afternoon is getting on. Might as well pick a nice car camping spot, take in the view, rest, and prepare to begin heavy day hikes tomorrow to cache water along our route. We select Pine Canyon #3 campsite on the south side of the Chisos Mountains. No camping spot in this divine national park is a bad choice.
The next morning, we perform our camping chore rituals. Rebecca always handles anything food related, and I always pitch and pack the tent. Skyla has her own ritual of making and breaking camp for her critters. Each team member handles their own sleeping bag packing and air mattress inflation/deflation. We bask in golden sunlight, with coffee in hand (adults!) and warm breakfast in bellies. The rugged desert glows.
When we strike camp, we plot a course for Terlingua, a small but growing former ghost town on the edge of the Big Bend N.P. The town attracts all types. It has become a cultural Mecca for Big Bend tourists and outdoor lovers. There are several outdoor tour guide businesses. We drift in and out of a couple outfits, then walk inside Desert Sports. We introduced ourselves, and I deliver a sixty second elevator speech about Project Remote and float the idea of whether anyone could and would mind caching water for our developing expedition. A nice woman named Ciara speaks with us. She seems very interested in what we are doing, and we instantly giver her a couple Project Remote bumper stickers. She goes in the back and fetches a colleague who she thinks might also like to hear about Project Remote. Billy Miller introduces himself. After hearing a little more about what we do, the both of them become a fountain of ideas for us. Right on the spot, Billy offers us the use of a packraft to shuttle water with, if it would help. I thought that was Jim Dandy and gracious of Billy. I told him we would think on it, and we thanked him. When it seemed that we had taken Billy and Ciara from their work for long enough, we parted company with handshakes and smiles. I figured we just might see them again.
As much as I would love to do some packrafting in this grand country, I didn’t want to leave my girls for multiple days out here. So our water plan would proceed with hiking efforts to cache water because we could all be together and get ourselves tuned for hiking as a unit in preparation for making the expedition. Later in the afternoon, the Remote Spotters set out on foot on the Marufo Vega Trail to make the first water cache and get our bodies moving after several uncomfortable days of sitting and driving. This hike allows us to assess how well our youngest team member, Skyla at 9 years old, will fare on a proposed four-day, three-night hike out and back across some of the most rugged terrain on earth. As if the never flat terrain, itself weren’t rough enough, carpet it with the thorniest plants on the planet, and you get Big Bend rough. Skyla is no stranger to hiking, but Big Bend type hiking ups the ante for anyone. Our first family day hike to cache water moves painfully slow. Skyla is rather tentative around cactus and steep terrain such as this. Overall, we are ecstatic that our child is cautious, and not one of those reckless type kids that could end up falling on a cactus any second. The Bend is not a place to make a single mistake while out in the wilderness. As such, another reality for our expedition sets in. We might not have enough time to make our journey as a family group given the slow pace we take together.
The next day, we decide that I, alone, will load up a heavy pack filled with a giant jug of water, and attempt to cache as much as I can carry on the far side of Marufo Vega Trail. The trail spans about 6 miles from south to north leading up and over the Sierra del Caballo Muerto descending back down to the Rio Grande. This trail historically was a route for foot and horse travelers to circumvent a steep-walled section of the Rio Grande where the vertical walls of Boquillas Canyon are too treacherous to travel by foot. This turns out to be one of my life’s most strenuous hikes. With cautious confidence, I don an 80 pound pack and set out early morning from trail head. I do train year-round for heavy-weight backpacking back in flat Florida, but how can any non-sherpa ask themselves to hoist 80 pounds four steep,rugged miles over a cactus-laden mountain range and not expect to feel some pain? I looked forward to dropping that jug on the other side of the mountains and treating myself to a fast light hike on way back.
Skyla and Rebecca see me off with hugs and kisses. We agree that I MUST be back by sundown. Cell phone coverage is scanty at best, so communication is a crap-shoot. I stretch my physical limits all morning on the ascent, then across the top, going slower than I am used to moving. I make the final push another mile to the river down a dicey descent hefting the colossal pack . My left knee starts to crunch during each descending step. At last–at 2:30 pm, I approach the riparian corridor. Here, I must scramble off-trail and find a suitable place to stash my lead-filled water jug. I think to myself: “it’s going to sit here for up to several days, so I don’t want anyone to find it, not that I am worried that a single soul will pass through precisely where I stand, off-trail, at the moment.” I nestle the jug near a boulder on its north side so that it will be in the shade most of each day, yet be relatively obtainable as we pass by on foot a few days from now. At least that’s the plan.
I take a thirty minute rest on a rock, eat, drink, contemplate my tiny existence in a vast multiiverse, then I get up, slowly. I place a hand on my stiff back. I absorb the view upstream within Boquillas Canyon. Being solo, the remoteness factor for me here is high today. Why can’t I do something amazing, like this, every day for the rest of my life? If I were conducting our remote spot assessment right here, right now, I would record no discernible evidence of humans, save for knowledge of the existence of the barely-discernible Marufo Vega hiking trail, about a quarter mile away, on which I saw no one all day long. And equally important, I heard nothing but a few wisps of wind and bird calls.
I’m stoked thinking that I can huff it back effortlessly with significantly less weight. I take a few steps going back up the exact route I just made a half hour ago. The knee crunches with each step. Just a few hundred yards out, pain engulfs my left knee. Not an ache, pain. Walking becomes limping. I stop to process the pain. I shake my leg. I grab my knee cap and jiggle it back and forth a little bit. I can’t believe that each step is nearly debilitating. This has never ever happened to me before. In life, my iron knees never have let me down no matter what the call of duty required. How am I going to make it back feeling this kind of pain with nearly 6 miles of gnarly Big Bend country left to negotiate? There is no choice in the matter. I literally limp the entire way back, relying heavily on my trekking poles and good knee. It takes another 4 hours to return just six miles. Each step feels like a tow hitch to the knee cap. This could just jeopardize our entire Texas Remote Spot expedition. So much for enjoying my “light hike” on the return from caching water.
At sundown, with a little light left, I emerge out of the desert and see my girls anxiously awaiting me. The look on my face tells all. With concerned eyes, Rebecca asks, “What happened?” Exhausted, I tell them the tale. The good news is that we now have water placed strategically along our proposed hiking route into the TX Remote Spot, but I presently cannot undertake the hike to the Texas Remote Spot in this shape. Our spirits plummet like Wile E. Coyote off the edge of a cliff.
Months ago, back in Florida, while preparing for this expedition, an unknown man from across the country emailed us. He introduced himself as Matt Crossman, freelance writer, and outdoor adventure lover. He expressed a great interest in Project Remote, and said that he was keenly interested in writing about it. We’ve had these types of emails many times before. Some folks follow through, and some do not. Matt was the type that did.
Matt and I hit it off immediately. Emails became phone conversations. We exchanged grand tales of adventure. Matt explained that he greatly wished to team up with us somehow in order to write first hand about what we do using an actual remote spot expedition as the backdrop. And so he asked if he may join us somehow.
It’s no light thing taking a complete stranger along on a special family expedition. The whole thing could go south for any number of reasons. There would have to be good enough reason to say yes. The girls and I deliberated for a few days.
One of the biggest reasons we do this is to reach people with a conservation message. We believed Matt could help us do that. Plus, he sounded plenty nice enough on the telephone. So we hatched a plan to team up in Texas. I figured that Texas would be interesting enough and suitable for Matt’s skillset. I remember building this trip up for Matt while conversing by phone. He had never been to the Texas Big Bend, and I was eager to show its grandeur to someone who would appreciate it, in exchange for our message being featured in a major outdoor magazine. In the next few weeks, we learned that Matt had successfully pitched writing a feature article about Project Remote to BACKPACKER magazine. As long-time fans of that magazine, and of all of its outdoor-loving readers, we were extremely excited about this.
We drive north a few miles up the 4×4 track known as the Old Ore Road and score our next car camping spot. I am a cauldron of emotion. I’m not sure what hurts the most. The pain, itself? Damaged pride? Letting the girls down? Having to tell Matt, who will be rolling in shortly all the way from Missouri? Or maybe jeopardizing our opportunity to be in BACKPACKER?
I hobble while helping Rebecca and Skyla make camp. Rebecca prepares one of her famous camp meals. We slow down and eat after the chores. It’s a moonless sky after sunset. Star light alone alone provides enough illumination to do most anything around camp without need for a light. We sit alone together in the glistening dark. We chat with lowered voices so as to experience the complete absence of any sound.
The absence of human noise in the wild is something we refer to as “remote silence.” This is an attribute of truly remote wildlands with few or zero humans and therefore little or no human sounds. Humanity’s machines, such as cars streaming down roads, are very noisy things. They can be heard for miles across an otherwise would-be remote landscape. Years ago, we observed the roar of a road three miles away all night long while camping near the Arkansas Remote Spot. Human noise pollution can greatly impact the remoteness of a landscape.
Tonight, the silence is so loud, I can hear the universe. I listen for answers to my deepest questions about it. We know the universe is big, but how big? Is it endless or finite? Might there be others around ours all stacked together like dust particles in the desert? If space, matter, energy, and time really are infinite, then couldn’t anything be possible at some point? Heck, couldn’t everything be possible? Even probable. Is the human imagination a portal into of all the possibilities there are in the multiverse? If so, then maybe we will do this trip again where the complete history of time is the same except for the omission of my bum knee! I’d probably add and subtract a few other things if I were given a chance to repeat this timeline.
Deep into the evening, headlights flash in the distance. An automobile pulls up in a dust cloud. Matt steps out with a big smile and a firm handshake. We carry on like we had been friends for years. To have the trust to meet like this in a far away place already has formed a bond between us and him. It’s going to suck to have to tell him what just happened to my knee today….
Rebecca pours a glass of wine while I crack open a double IPA. We offer a beverage to Matt. He says that he doesn’t drink alcohol, but loves coffee. We relay to each other select events of our journeys to Texas thus far. Not one full hour after the wide-eyed, excited man arrives at his first camping spot ever inside the Big Bend, I spring it on him. As I speak, he absorbs that our expedition to the remotest location in Texas is in jeopardy because of an injury to my knee today. Matt takes it all very well, and with compassion for my multiple forms of pain. Now, I know he is REALLY cool! We agree to sleep on it and speak of solutions tomorrow.
The next morning, everyone asks, “how’s the knee?” “Same,” I grumble. We confer over breakfast consisting of coffee and food. The only solution that potentially salvages our Texas remote spot expedition is to take things day by day while giving the knee a rest. Matt can only hold out for so long waiting for my knee to heal. The girls and I can remain in the Bend for a while, if needed, and make an eventual call on whether to do the remote spot trip. Matt wants to experience the park while we give my knee a rest. We diverge for a few days.
The girls and I hole up a full week inside the national park. It turns out to be one of our finest weeks in the wild together. Rebecca delivers backcountry homeschooling to Skyla, with a Big Bend backdrop. As a family, we do something we rarely do while on Project Remote–take it “easy” and enjoy a vacation without a “mission.” The only mission now is to just heal. Eventually, I do some light day hikes. We do what visitors can so freely do here in this giant outdoor playground. We drive backroads, day hike in every direction, absorb the scenery, learn fascinating natural history, and car camp in well placed backcountry campsites under the endless sky. And we do this all while the knee gets progressively better by the day.
Matt sticks around for a few days to soak in the place and does a variety of day jaunts. We stay in touch. Among many things, he charters a private air tour of the Big Bend with Carlos (?) out of Terlingua as our pilot. Two days after first parting with Matt, one of our phones rings. It’s Matt. With broken connection, he explains that there are some extra seats on his chartered flight. Just enough for the Remote Spotters to join. We gleefully accept the opportunity.
The next morning, the four of us plus Carlos, the pilot, pack into the small engine plane. Aloft, we score an amazing aerial view of this primordial terrain. Carlos shares a broad natural history knowledge of the area earned over decades of priorly working for the national park service as a ranger. As remote as the Big Bend seems to us–and to everyone–I balk as I stare out the plane window at innumerable roads and old routes worming their way through the desert. Extant roads are the big worry. Old ruinous routes restoring back to desert are acceptable to us as long as they are no longer in use by motorized vehicles. And there’s a glochid spine thin line between the two.
On day four past injury, my knee pain is only barely noticeable, and it seems that a few more days might do the trick. However, Matt must now depart and cancel his participation in our expedition. But he remains in communication with BACKPACKER. They come up with an idea for a shorter article about Project Remote, that will not feature Matt’s accompaniment. We’re gonna miss our new friend, but we are elated that events appear to be shaking out in the win column for all of us despite setback.
We drive into Terlingua for food and supplies. e sort of invite each other to lunch at Rio Bravo Mexican Restaurant. Now this is the best little authentic Mexican restaurant north of the border. Billy mentions that there is plenty of water in the rio right now for canoe passage. I look at the girls and raise my brows. In his next sentence, Billy graciously offers to lend us his personal Old Town Tripper, royalex tandem canoe. Well, gliding over water is a mite easier than hauling massive packs by foot over Big Bend terrain. We accept the offer and hatch a plan right there to morph our expedition into primarily a river float trip rather than a backpacking one. There still would be a relatively short day hike up into the Deadhorse Mountains from the mouth of Arroyo Venado. As a bonus, my knee would have at least a couple more days to heal while I sat in a canoe. Thank you Billy for making that an option for us!!!!
Thursday, December 6, 2018. We gear up for a colossal canoe adventure on the Rio Grande through Boquillas Canyon. Our expedition will be 33 total miles on the Rio Grande beginning in Rio Grande Village and ending at the nearest takeout beyond the park, called La Linda. Boquillas Canyon is the longest (about 20 miles) and deepest (approx. 2500 feet deep) of three canyons created by the Rio Grande within Big Bend National Park. World class scenery and grand adventure await. The best paddle craft adventures in the wilderness do require much logistical effort. At Billy’s suggestion, we hire someone to help us plant my car at La Linda this morning. This requires me to pay someone to drive behind me all the way there, then drive me back to embarkation point after leaving my car at the takeout.
La Linda is a deserted mining ghost town now inhabited by a man named Butch and wife named Phyllis. They eke out a living as ranch caretakers and entrepreneurs. They are both home grown Texans. Half their visible horizon is remote Mexico. I introduce myself and explain our expedition to them in some detail. Afterward, I inquire about leaving my car parked in their yard for safe keeping. Butch and Phyllis are positioned along the Rio Grande such that many river runners pay them to leave their vehicles at the ends of planned excursions. They ask a nominal charge to let river runners leave their vehicles in their care for such runs. I gladly pay their asking price of 90$ to allow me to leave my vehicle in their safe keeping and watch over it in their desert yard for 4 days and 3 nights while we attempt the Texas Remote Spot expedition. I’m planning for the car to be sitting right on their ranch where I left it when we return in a canoe. The car shuttling requires all morning from sunup. I return to Rio Grande Village a little before noon.
The clock’s ticking. We immediately begin our gear organization and packing ritual. Packing for a river trip is a little different than for backpacking. On river trips, one must bring extra safety and waterproofing gear. PFD’s are a must, and will be worn at all times. And extra paddle also is a must. All gear that we desire to remain dry is stuffed snugly into durable dry bags, then everything in the canoe must be tied and fastened within the boat in the event that we flip the canoe over. I, being the most experienced paddler, take the stern while Rebecca takes the bow. We place Skyla on a makeshift seat on the floor of the boat just in front of me. We want her center of mass low in case of rough water.
The wind starts to whip, and clouds are rolling in. Temperature drops. Feathery rain streaks fall out of some of the clouds, but it evaporates well before touching the ground. Precipitation that dries before touching ground is a phenomenon known as virga. But some rain is in the forecast for the first day or two of our trip. The Rio Grande corridor occupies the lowest elevation in the Big Bend country. Its climate is hot and dry, except for when it cools down in winter. Annual rainfall is only around 8 inches along the river. Heck, we could get that in one day where I’m from in Florida. Typically, in desert and mountain country, the lower you go the drier it gets. The higher, the wetter. I think to myself, “the rain, or virga, probably wont even touch the ground where we are going.” Of course we are prepared if it does…
At last, we embark into the largest roadless area in Texas around 12:45 p.m. We step with wet muddy boots into our seating positions. Being the most experienced, I take the stern. Many times in my adult life, I have canoed solo and tandem in the wilderness up through solid class III whitewater. To ease any potential angst in my partners, I inform them with a cautious grin that I have never flipped in a canoe and don’t plan on starting. I hope I didn’t just jinx us. Rebecca has some paddling experience, but primarily on flat water. She had tandem canoed swift water twice in life before this. Both times the canoe had flipped. None of us wants there to be a third. Not here. Not now. Rebecca takes bow. We position skyla in front of me and deliberately sit her down on a pad set on the boat bottom to lower her center of gravity. This would keep her more stable should things get dicey on fast water.
As we shove off, the first thing I feel is adrenalized excitement. We grab the swift water with forward paddling strokes. Our boat accelerates, and wind starts to blow in our faces. My excitement turns to apprehension. This is brand new water for all of us. We heard from speaking with guides that the Rio Grande through Boqullas Canyon is largely free of serious whitewater. The route is dominated by mostly flat, yet swiftly flowing water. However, of note for us were the mentions of abundant class 1 riffles, and the occasional class II rapid, depending on water level. We must read the river correctly and respond to every situation quickly to avoid any potential disaster, such as flipping the boat and plunging into the frigid swift waters. Skyla isn’t yet a powerful swimmer, although she can swim. Given my paddling experience, it’s kind of all on me to get us through in one piece with mission and bodies intact. Not in that order. We must quickly become a good tandem canoe team.
Admittedly, I am a little antsy from the get go. One of the things you think of as a parent in the wilderness with your children is that their well being is pretty much entirely in your hands. One wrong move or read of the river by me could jeopardize the expedition through injury, loss of critical gear, or worse. Being on a swift river in a remote desert canyon ups the ante. Regardless of the challenges, people like us still hunger to answer the call of the wild.
The entire first afternoon of our voyage is all we had hoped it would be. Our journey begins atop rather gentle water. It affords us the opportunity to get used to our paddling positions, settle into our vessel, and take in the stupendous scenery. After an hour, we paddle past Rio Grande Village. There are no challenging situations, so we practice our simple forward paddling and proper canoe steerage. There are some people along the river corridor. A random man on the Mexican side bathes naked in the river. We tell Skyla not to look, slightly too late. Quickly after passing the village, we enter Boquillas Canyon and exit the inhabitable. Colossal canyon walls frequently squeeze up against the river. We encounter zero people past the village for the rest of the day until camp.
Upon entering the top of the canyon, river velocity increases. The river becomes a swift class 1 riffle. There are multiple braided channels, curves, shallows, exposed rocks and boulders to navigate. Paddling a swift river is like driving a car. You absolutely cannot take your eyes off the river as if it were a road, and your paddle becomes as critical as a steering wheel. The worst obstacles can be strainers and sweepers. A strainer is a gnarly dead plant, shrub, or tree mass that sticks up out of water like teeth on a jaw. If you collide with one, you likely take a swim with all of your gear. A sweeper is a leaning dead shrub, tree, or cactus that hangs over the water from the edge of the river. They are so named because if you go under one, you can be swept off of your boat right into the drink. If either happens to be thorny, as is typical for plants in this region, then it’s bad news squared. Prickly pear cactus and thorny mesquite arms make the most dangerous sweepers. And there are plenty of both along the way. We must not take our eyes off the river.
In the five hours that we paddle on the first day of our voyage, Rebecca and I quickly morph into a well-oiled paddling tandem. My dear wife and adventure partner is eager to learn new paddling skills. She willingly listens to any tips I provide her in the first hours of our voyage. It’s great to have a coachable canoe partner. I hope she doesn’t mind my near constant advice. I’ve seen couples nearly eject one another from the boat because they simply cannot cross their ego streams without evoking cataclysm. Not so for Rebecca, Skyla, and me. I thank my lucky desert stars that the girls and I work well together. Project Remote would have gone extinct if we couldn’t.
Now and again, the river is chill enough such that we just sit in awe. Sometimes a squirrely wind blows our boat sideways. Sideways in a canoe is not a position you want to be in for long on fast water. When it happens, we quickly reorient our vessel vertically downstream. Near day’s end, a few cold rain drops hit the water surface or our hands, but you could count the number of drops on both hands. We travel 12 miles into the far interior reaches of the immense canyon all afternoon.
Often times on Project Remote, we lament how un-remote most state remote spots really are. On the Missouri Remote Spot, we saw a beer can shoved on the end of a bush stem. I would have slapped the idiot who stuck it there. In Alabama, human trash from boaters and the oil industry had washed up on the beach everywhere. In New Jersey, the Atlantic City skyline was visible on the horizon. While standing on THE remotest location in the entire Lower 48 United States, in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, we had the displeasure of knowing that a manure-laden horse and hiking trail with a ranger cabin was downslope and just over the hill less than one mile away.
Such oxymoron frequently causes us to reflect on the meaning of remote. Feeling as though you are remote and actually being remote often are different experiences. The way a person feels is a qualitative quantity that varies greatly by person. A measured physical distance away from something is a mathematically precise, quantity. It is therefore quantitative. Such as distance from roads. We have labored to make Project Remote a quantitative , scientific pursuit in order to weed out variable immeasurables such as human perceptions. However, as humans, ourselves, we experience plenty of feelings. We are learning that the definition of remote has two parts–the quantitative, and the qualitative. When both of those parts are in abundance, then the experience of remoteness is high. Canoeing through this immense gouge in the Earth’s crust on the Rio Grande gives us a great feeling of remoteness because of the difficulty of getting out of this canyon if we had to. As we float, we do see the occasional piece of human trash. We also know that we can be no more than 6.6 miles from a road anywhere within hundreds of miles of here. A crow would have to fly about 400 miles NW all the way to the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico in order to get farther from a road than we will get in Texas. But because of our perceptions about un-peopled wild canyons, a remote experience of high quality is underway. For humans, perception often is as real as reality.
When the sun drops close to the horizon, that instinct to find a suitable place to camp kicks in. Sunlight gets scarce, but we find a decent camping spot. Unfortunately, the only good flat tent spot is covered in donkey manure. We kick the donkey chips out as best as we can, then quickly pitch tent. Sometimes on Project Remote, it seems like the whole West is covered in bovid or equine manure. This always detracts from our perception of remoteness. I go down by the river for a second. Larger rain drops hit the water. A single whitewater raft with 6 people races by. We quickly exchange waves and hellos. These are the only people we have seen since the naked dude bathing.
We are now near the center of the largest roadless area in Texas. When calculating the Texas Remote Spot, we had to take into account what roads there may be inside neighboring Mexico. Thankfully, this whole roadless area in Texas adjoins a similarly roadless area in Mexico. Taken together, the whole roadless area as well as the Texas Remote Spot is internationally preserved. If either Mexico or Texas punches in a road inside this area, the Texas Remote Spot will decrease in magnitude and shift location. Thankfully, both Texas and Mexico preserve this area as national parks. Conservation is at its best when nations work together to preserve wild lands.
Steady rain commences, and the temperature drops into the 40’s. We pile into the tent, and finish cooking inside the vestibule. Total darkness falls upon us, and we eat while bantering. It was nice of the real rain to hold off while we got camp set. We feel pretty lucky to have a dry little nest in the rain. I thought to myself that it couldn’t last too long around here.
I toss and turn in the night, unsettled at the sheer volume of rain that materializes on us. Much to our chagrin, it rains every second of all night long. I now fear greatly the potential for substantial river rise. Fortunately and instinctively, we had selected a tent spot about as high above the water level as we had available, about 10 feet. We also had pulled the canoe well up on land, and tied the bow rope at head height on a shrub. Even so, you still worry about river rise during such a big rain in a tight canyon.
At some point in the rainy night, the stench of jack ass crap fills the tent. We apparently didn’t remove all the burro manure out of our tent spot. Just add water, and donkey doo reconstitutes like a freeze dried camp meal. It smells different, however.
When daylight finally breaks, it is still raining steadily. First thing’s first. I needed to eyeball the river and see if it had risen. I plunge out of the warm tent into a drenched desert. Whew, our boat is still there! The rio also appears about the same level as yesterday, which is a pleasant surprise. My spirit rises. Cold rain beads quickly on my rain shell. The chill of rainy mid 40’s sets in my bones. Surely this can’t last much longer. It’s been 12 hours straight. None of us wishes to pack up a drenched muddy, manurey tent or sit in the boat all day paddling in the cold rain. So we stay put and play a waiting game.
I try to pitch our ultralight tarp, which we pack along on every multiday wilderness excursion that we do. It comes in handy for just this type of situation. You don’t want to stand around in a cold rain any longer than you have to while exposed in the wilderness. But I can’t find any suitable thorn-less vegetation to tie the tarp onto without damaging an expensive piece of gear. Frustrated, I heave myself back into the tent. It’s a pain dealing with muddy boot and rain gear removal during tent entry. Soaked gear gets stashed under the soiled, damp vestibule.
The girls and I share the confines of the tent off and on all day. We snack. We play a couple games. We get out and stroll or stand around while collecting raindrops. The rain simply isn’t quitting. What kind of desert is this? This would be a big rain for a rain forest, let alone a dry desert. I temporarily delight in seeing an occasional fall wildflower still in bloom, such as desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata). I spot a cool looking greyish beetle on a rock. It’s some kind of huge, robust weevil. As a biologist, I am endlessly fascinated by life and by finding new organisms I’ve never seen before. Looks like the weevils are bigger in Texas, too….
Night falls as the rain continues. The girls and I prep our freeze dried dinners and consume them in the dark, damp tent. We toss and turn ourselves to sleep. At some point in the middle of the night, I awaken and hear zero drops pounding the tent.
At daybreak, I shoot out of the tent to check on things and make coffee. The canoe is half filled with water. I bail it out. The river still has not appreciably risen. I swell up and nearly hee haw with happiness! We later learned that three inches of rain fell on a large swath of the Big Bend country that day. I don’t know what surprised me more. That the river didn’t rise appreciably during that spell? Or that it can actually come a deluge in a desert?
Rebecca pops out of the tent all chipper as usual. What a lucky husband I am to have scored such a contagiously jubilant spouse. I’m not always as peppy upon awakening, but I’m at my best anytime while camping in the wilderness. I mess with the boat and some gear while she makes breakfast of warm oatmeal and chunk of butter. I throw into mine a grab of my pre-made trail mix. Skyla eventually emerges from the tent groggy like a cub out of hibernation. But she’s stoked that the rain has passed, and that we can exit the donkey doo hole.
Packing up camp always takes quite a while. We get on the river by about mid-day. Even though we have lost a day of travel due to bedding down in the rain, we still have plenty of time to complete the rest of our expedition. Today, we expect to rendezvous with the water jug that I painfully planted down by the river last week. We look forward to getting our drinking water boost. It remains cloudy all morning.
In a short hour paddling, we reach our water drop point. I had marked it with GPS, and expect to locate it easily. Slowly, I bushwhack up the cactus-cloaked riverbank, a chore in its own right, and deliver myself to the exact GPS coordinates where I placed the heavy water jug a week ago. IT IS NOWHERE TO BE FOUND! I spout every known expletive, then I invent new ones. Skyla refers to them as “dadoo words.” The girls shout up to inquire about all the ruckus. I yell that our jug apparently has been STOLEN. Who in the hell would have done that…..? I Sherlock Holmes the area. Nothing. No footprints. Nada.
Last week, I had spent an entire day of hard labor making sure that jug would be well placed for our remote spotting trip. Then I spent a subsequent week paying for it with a bum knee. I’m angry as all get-out. We had a written permit from national park authorities to be here and to have planted that jug.
So who did it and why? Best we could figure is that border patrol somehow detected the jug remotely, then sent in someone to retrieve it. It would have been a hell of a hike. Maybe they thought it was stashed by and for immigrants making their way unlawfully into America from south of the border. Thinking how that could be done to such a precise target in this gigantic land is a chilling reminder that big brother may never be too far away around here. And that right there is another way a person’s sense of remoteness in the outdoors can take a big hit. A Texas-sized hit.
We collect our wits, and ourselves, then hop back into our trusty borrowed canoe, and continue the expedition downriver. Now I wish I had topped off our single extant water jug with some of that abundant rain water that had filled the boat a night ago. We still had about 5 gallons among us. There were at least two more solid long days that it would take us to complete the journey. Of course, we also packed a pumping water filter just in case. Darn glad we did. You don’t play around with your ability to secure drinking water while on a multi-day expedition in the wilderness. The ante ups in the desert.
The river is steady and swift, but there are no concerning rapids yet. Of course, there is the occasional rock, strainer, or sweeper to avoid as we thrust paddles forward. We don’t paddle too long. Arroyo Venado comes into view on river left, the Texas side. The Texas Remote Spot resides not too far up Arroyo Venado canyon. Just before the mouth of the arroyo, there is a sweet camping area with plenty of flat sandy spots to pitch tent. We paddle only about 4 miles total today. Clouds have moved on, and that gorgeous blue sky returns just as we make camp. There’s a couple hours of daylight left.
The Texas Remote Spot is only about 1.6 crow fly miles from camp now. I can’t sit still. It seems like a perfect time to set off up the arroyo to scout a good approach to the remote spot. The girls hang around camp while I set out. At first, I attempt to just walk up the side canyon. But the canyon narrows and becomes too steep.
I must figure a scramble route up cactus-laden walls of Boquillas Canyon in order to bypass the hairy spot up Arroyo Venado. It takes some time. The whole way, I slip, slide, huff, and puff my way about 500 feet up out of Boquillas and into Arroyo Venado. When I get up top, there is a straight view about a mile and a half NW up side canyon to the remote spot, but it is another 500 feet up clinging to the side of the Dead Horse Mountains. Traveling 100 yards seems like a mile. This trail-less terrain is considerably more challenging than the Marufo Vega trail system. After all the years spent in the area, I have come to realize that there is no more challenging hiking terrain than off-trail Big Bend.
I think about Skyla. She’s just nine, and she’s a cautious kid by nature. This personality trait has probably saved her from numerous mishaps that more rambunctious kids experience. However, all the data indicate that she likely won’t be able to hike to the remote spot and back in a single day. In fact, it could take several days at her pace. She may, actually, not even desire to do it. Being young and tentative, she could easily slip and fall on a cactus or worse. She will be petrified with fear. Reality sets into my heavy heart. I scramble my way back to camp just before nightfall.
Somehow I have to break the news to my familial companions that Skyla likely cannot make this last leg of the expedition because of too-challenging terrain. Project Remote really is all about Skyla. Adult men and women have been doing amazing things outdoors since the dawn of humanity. But not so much with their young kids in tow. I cannot fathom her not being on the Texas Remote Spot. She has been to all but one of the 37 state remote spots thus far.
During dinner prep, I pull Rebecca aside and confer with her about the situation. We tell Skyla. None of us are ecstatic about what options we have about accomplishing our mission.
Option one is for us to just hike as far as we can toward the spot in one day, and document a location ‘close’ to the remote spot. But deep down that doesn’t sit well with Rebecca and me. To be this close and not get it done is unacceptable. Especially after all the effort it took to calculate the spot. I guess it’s a matter of pride.
Option two would be for the team to send one of its members on a one-day hiking expedition to go document the Texas Remote Spot. The others could wait in camp. Either Rebecca or I can make it, but not without serious energy expediture. It will be a nearly 1000 feet ascent over one and a half straight line miles. All off-trail. Having to meander about in search for a passable route through this rugged terrain will tack on more distance and time.
Once, it took us 5 hours to travel about 1 mile off-trail through dense hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) inside the Lye Brook Wilderness while navigating to the Vermont Remote Spot. And that was without thorny plants. Around here, in the Chihuahuan Desert, you can off-trail hike in the arid lowlands. That’s because there is sufficient space between thorny plants to step. But as you go up in elevation, climatic moisture increases, and so density of vegetation also increases. At some point, with elevation gain, off-trail hiking simply becomes impossible. I’m hoping that the Texas Remote Spot is still sufficiently low enough to at least be reachable. We decide to sleep on it, and make a group decision in the morning.
Most days in the wilderness, I’m up like a jack-in-the-box in the morning after camping. But this morning, I lay still and ponder on making the best decision for Project Remote as a whole. Of course, it’s a group decision. This is all about Skyla, but there is a larger mission with what we do. The mission is to get that simple 15-minute remote spot assessment, from THE state remote spot, along with documentary photo and video capture. To preserve the mission, it becomes apparent that we must break with tradition this morning. Our youngest and most valuable member must stay at river base camp. One parent must remain with her.
Skyla and Rebecca are a very bonded mother/daughter unit. Rebecca knows it will have to be her that remains with Skyla for supervision, protection, and comfort, while I set out solo to document the spot. It is the best division of labor to preserve the mission. Mama and Skyla will have made it to within 1.6 miles from the Texas Remote Spot, and will have a mountain of memories to look back upon. Despite this, all of us feel some emotional discomfort that the usual trio cannot stand shoulder to shoulder together on the precise Texas Remote Spot. I guess we will have to remember the adage that life is about the journey, not the destination.
The story of Buchele….
Texas Remote Spot Expedition Journal in progress…..More to come soon!
Texas Expedition Journal in Progress….